“Othello” is a study in betrayal, duplicity and manipulation set within a world of dubious intimate relationships and dangerous military alliances. It is a cruel play in which mean games of deception and suspicion lead directly to blood and unnecessary death. Iago is one of literature's great villains, a man so consumed by the power of misdirecting others that he cannot but ruin himself. Othello's love for the unfairly accused Desdemona is perverted into a murderous retribution, while her decency is dismissed like the thin handkerchief that is the central evidence against her.
This production, directed by Arin Arbus, was brought to Intiman from New York's Theatre for a New Audience, where it enjoyed an acclaimed run. It uses an attractive but physically spare setting to keep our attention on the characters, as it should. Unfortunately, most of those characters are oddly diffused, the actions regrettably superficial and the dynamics of the play too often unrealized. While there is a good deal of physical action (the swordplay is excellent) the woundings and murders feel artificial and blatantly stagy. For the most part, that is because the production has not earned depth and resonance to its violence, and there is certainly no sense of the magnitude of tragedy. The entire production lacks a strong sense of urgency, the tension of actions which, though intentional, also feel inevitable.
Of course, the center of the play must be Othello and Iago. Othello is essentially a soldier returned home, and as played by Sean Patrick Thomas he seems more at home in the courts than on a battlefield. There is a fine dignity and elegance about the character, but not enough sense that he is accustomed to brutality and suffering as an everyday human condition. I think that needs to be there for murder to be so proximate a choice for him. Mr. Thomas spoke his lines beautifully, and had fine presence and control, but what he really lacked was a strong enough opposition, a powerful enough incentive to drive him to such extremity. His relationship with Desdemona was fine, just the right blend of affection and socially appropriate distance. I thought Elizabeth Waterston played Desdemona with an attractive grace, but not enough passion between her and Othello. Her height was also a problem, and while I realize it's not really appropriate to criticize actors for the nature of their bodies, in this case her greater height created a physical dissonance between the two actors and their relationship. Similarly, John Campion's age distorted the power balance and the implications of motive between his Iago and the considerably younger Othello.
I also felt Iago's accent added nothing to the character and simply made the dialogue harder to understand. Similarly, Roderigo's (Denis Butkus) rapid delivery, often voiced upstage, robbed much of his text of clarity and much of his character of impact.
Much more of a problem, however, was the character of Iago. As played by Campion, the man seemed inconsequential and mean spirited, but trivial rather than tyrannical. This felt like a man who is firmly entrenched on the sidelines of power, has been for many years, and I never really had the sense that he owns an awareness that his manipulations and deceptions are a kind of power in themselves, an especially brutal and destructive power. Without that, Othello feels more like a man who has bad things done to him than one who is seduced into catastrophe.
Perhaps the most telling criticism of this production is that I came to the end of it without ever feeling that the theatrical experience had any weight, any emotional importance, any payoff for our engagement. This felt like a story, not a real drama, certainly not a tragedy.